This is part 2 in a roundtable discussion with members of our reviewing team. We are immensely grateful for their work. Most of them lead busy professional lives that center around literacy and literature. It only figures that they would have more to say about Latinx kid lit than can fit into a single review. Let’s hear them out.
LiKL: Tell us about yourself as a child reader. How do those experiences color your impressions of the books you read now?
Jessica Agudelo is a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library. Like many librarians, I was a dedicated reader throughout my childhood. I loved stories and even the physical books themselves. One of my greatest pleasures was when the Scholastic Book Fair would come to my elementary school. I felt such joy browsing the glossy covers, then selecting just the right one to bring home and add to my own cupboard library. My treasured stash. I adored books like Amber Brown and the Wayside School series, and later the Caroline B. Cooney mysteries. I was an adult before I started realizing that my reading life was devoid of authors and characters of color. I didn’t know I needed it. But once I realized it was missing, I made a point to read all I could by and about Latinxs, and other non-white cultures and people. Nowadays, when I read titles like Pablo Cartaya’s The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora, or Celia Perez’s The First Rule of Punk, I feel like I am 11 again, because these authors have so beautifully and honestly depicted the experiences of second-generation Latinx youth, reflecting many of my own struggles and joys. I am also grateful to be in the position to share diverse stories with kids, who can recognize themselves in these books or get a glimpse into the life of someone. In this way, I make up for lost time.
Jessica Walsh is the K-12 ELA Instructional Specialist in an Illinois school district. In kindergarten, I won a prize for having read the most books in my grade. We didn’t have many books at home back then – we couldn’t afford them–so I relied on my school and public libraries. Later I got books from the Scholastic Book Order and read titles like Beezus and Ramona and the Peanut Butter and Jelly series. Moving on to middle school, I consumed a steady diet of Sweet Valley High and everything by Christopher Pike. I remember staring long and hard at the covers, imagining what it would be like to live those lives. Looking back, I was searching to discover who I was. As the only kid of Mexican descent, I looked different than my peers and my hair wouldn’t do what the other girls’ hair did. (It was the 80s though…so I rocked that perm!) We had little money and I never had the right clothes or accessories. What the books I read had in common, though, were the universal struggles of growing up: conflicts with friends, parents. As I read and consider which books to put in kids’ hands, I think about the books I loved and that instilled in me a joy of reading.
Elena Foulis, Ph.D., leads a digital oral-history program to document the stories of Latinxs in Ohio. As a child, I liked reading, but lacked someone in my life who could point me to good books, appropriate for my age or identity. When I started college, I was in the U.S. and I devoured books that connected me to my roots and reminded me where I came from. I mostly read in Spanish, and later on, multi-ethnic literature in English. I have a graduate degree in comparative literature, so reading from different groups allowed me to learn from different cultures, linguistic backgrounds and histories.
LiKL: What is your reviewing process like? Do you take notes throughout your reading time? Are there sticky flags involved? Are there sticky fingers involved (because: sugary snacks)?
Elena: I am a slow reader! I like to take my time with each book. I pause to imagine the landscape, the characters and the sound of their voices. I write on the margins and highlight important passages. Coffee is always involved, so occasionally, my books have coffee stains. 🙂
Jessica A: My reviewing process varies, depending on what I’m reading. For picture books, I read once through for an initial reaction to the story and art. Then I read a few more times (at least once, aloud) to note specifics, such as the relationship between the text and illustrations, or narrative strength and nuance. For fiction, sticky notes are a necessity! I don’t like writing in books and hate dog ears (although I sometimes use this technique on the train, when sticky notes aren’t available). I make notes about recurring themes, characters and their notable traits, plot specifics, and stand-out quotes that I might want to include in the review. I also jot down any similar books that come to mind, to offer that additional frame of reference.
LiKL: Your work as an educator, youth librarian, scholar of children’s literature is bound to affect your work as a reviewer. Help us understand the professional perspective you bring to the evaluation of texts.
Elena: In my studies, I read literature of the Spanish-speaking world and U.S. literature. Although this included canonical works, I was always attracted to writers who spoke from the margins. I liked to understand the perspective of those on the peripheries, those who challenged mainstream culture. I devoured books written by women! I think this experience is valuable to reviewing Latinx books, and as a Latina who has two teen girls, I look for how each author approaches culture, identity and language, and how young women might be empowered by books that tell a familiar story, one that connects to their own experiences.
LiKL: Let’s draw up a wish list for authors and publishers. Which genres, storylines, locations, representations, or other considerations do you pine for in books for children or teens?
Jessica A: More ordinary stories! Latinxs are joyful and resilient, we are not always struggling and suffering. There is beauty in the mundane. I’ve had the privilege of hearing Meg Medina speak a number of times. On one occasion, she mentioned the need for our community to elevate our heroes. I couldn’t agree more. We have an admirable list of icons, but there are so many more Latinx artists, writers, thinkers, scientists, and activists that have influenced American and world history. They should be represented in the books our kids and teens are reading.
Elena: I am still hoping to write a book myself! After living in the Midwest for many years, I would love to read about growing up Latinx in that region. We have The House on Mango Street, but we also need the perspective of Latinx growing up in rural areas or smaller cities, and from Central American backgrounds. It’s also important to address current topics that some consider taboo, like mental health.
Jessica W: I would love to see the books I needed when I was younger, such as books about kids with a desire to claim their Latinx culture, because their parents intentionally kept that part of their identity hidden. Growing up, my mother, who remarried, kept me away from my Mexican-American family. We moved thousands of miles away and rarely visited, partly due to the cost of travel. Not until later did she reclaim her heritage, so this meant I never heard family stories, although my father did enrich my life with the traditions of his heritage. I hope that young readers in similar experiences will have someone in their lives–a librarian, a teacher, a mentor–who can place an amazing Latinx story in their hands, which celebrate their culture. If I’d had that, I wouldn’t have continued to struggle with my Mexicanidad, even into adulthood.
LiKL: Now let’s flip the coin. What are your reading pet peeves? Specify the tired tropes, stereotypes, or overused plot machinations that cause you to roll your eyes—or to slam a book shut.
Elena: I think there are too many coming-of-age stories in Latinx books. While these storylines are important, perhaps there can be different ways to tell them.
LiKL: What is your current hot read and which books are at the top of your to-be-read list?
Jessica W: Meg Medina’s middle-grade title Merci Suárez Changes Gears is dominating my thoughts right now. It’s such a powerful, yet humorous, look at intergenerational relationships and the inescapable bonds of family ties. A must-read! Also, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales, Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish by Pablo Cartaya, Undocumented: A Worker’s Fight by Duncan Tonatiuh, and Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky: Myths of Mexico by David Bowles, are all fighting for my attention right now!
Jessica A: Most of my time is spent reading children’s books. Most recently I’ve checked out some wonderful picture books, including a wordless debut by Cynthia Alonso called Aquarium; the beautifully illustrated Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal; and the hilarious (and bilingual) take on the famous cryptid, El Chupacabras, by Adam Rex. I also recently read Feathered Serpent, Dark Heart of Sky, a fantastic young adult/adult collection of myths from Mexico retold by David Bowles. Usually I wait until the end of the year to read adult books, and on my to-read list is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, and The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Those are just a few titles. The full list is much, much longer!
Elena: Anything by Chimamanda Adichie! On my to-be-read- list: Tell Me How it Ends: and Essay in 40 questions, by Valeria Luiselli, and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, by Erika L. Sánchez.